Network-centric Parks Advocates Show Signs of Things to Come

By Kate Kaye, 08/02/2005 – 1:40pm

Leave it to a campaign aiming to improve New York City’s parks not to miss the forest for the trees. Parks1 is harnessing the Web’s inexpensive communications tools and social networks to spur interest in parks-related issues among voters and candidates and get the word out to the press. But the nonpartisan group hasn’t forgotten the importance of real-world interaction and old-fashioned grassroots advocacy. This 360-degree approach serves as a sign of advocacy campaigns to come.

The New Yorkers for Parks offshoot makes the most of already-established online groups with a vested interest in parks – even if those groups don’t automatically see the parks connection. Lurking among online networks of like-minded folks through listservs, MySpace and Yahoo Groups, as well as other online social spheres, Parks1 online communications director, Fred Gooltz, taps into communities of New York-based ultimate Frisbee players, sailboat gazers, and cycling enthusiasts, in the hopes of engaging them in parks issues.

“Little do they know that parks is an issue that should be of interest to them,” observes Gooltz. Parks1 campaign manager, Justin Krebs, continues that “[Political advocacy] as an outgrowth of a social group is really natural.”

In addition to enticing Web communities and working with 380 official partner groups to promote its mission, Parks1 looks to its own online community network accounts on Friendster, MySpace, and photo site Flickr — where folks post park photos that link to the Parks1 site – to gain interest and build membership. Using free services like these serves advocacy organizations well, and costs virtually nothing.

“Bands know it. Dog walkers know it….Advocacy groups are just beginning to learn it,” comments Krebs, who contends that some groups can be easily duped by website developers pitching pricey campaign sites and consulting services.

“The tools are all out there for free and you can hire a college kid for 500 bucks to help you tie it all together,” asserts Krebs. Practicing what they preach, Parks1’s website and backend technologies have been built through CivicSpace’s software, a cost-effective grassroots organizing tool favored by the open source technology set.

A recent forum held by the nonpartisan campaign on July 26 to discuss parks funding and other parks issues featured Democratic NYC Mayoral primary candidates Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, city council speaker Gifford Miller and Fernando Ferrer, as well as Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Republican challenger, Tom Ognibene. This real-world event was complemented by a real-time virtual component in the form of a live blog. A range of New York City-centric bloggers were invited to attend the session and post their immediate reactions to the forum blog as the event took place.

This sort of thing may be commonplace at tech conferences and well-orchestrated national party conventions, but a full-fledged invitation to prominent New York City bloggers like The Politicker‘s Ben Smith and Gothamist’s Jen Chung to attend and record such an event is still a rare occurrence.

Some lawmakers have felt overwhelmed by the growth in advocacy efforts facilitated by Internet communications. However, Maria Alvarado, deputy press secretary for Gifford Miller recognizes the ability to engage in political discourse through such real-world events, as well as online through blogs, to be “a great resource.” Adds Alvarado, “We try to take advantage of it as much as possible….I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge; it’s an opportunity.”

Keeping a regularly updated campaign blog, offering press releases and partner kits online, and allowing supporters to choose events they’d like to volunteer for via the campaign site are all part of the Parks1 experiment. The more innovative element: following-up volunteer online registrations with phone calls from actual human beings. In-person interaction with online social networks and live petition drives also demonstrate the campaign’s dedication to communicating beyond the virtual realm. Think of it as a revved-up Meetup.

Launched in April, Parks1 has found that maintaining a dynamic, regularly-updated campaign website, as opposed to housing campaign information on the more static New Yorkers for Parks parent site, has proved beneficial. Offering bite-sized bits of news on a daily basis allows people to stay clued-in despite hectic lifestyles. “Now we have people following the campaign, staying active in it in the five minutes they have at work,” explains Krebs, deeming the phenomenon “cubicle campaigning.” So far, Parks1’s Plea for NYC Parks petition has been signed by 26,000 people, using both indelible and virtual ink.

Krebs chalks up the campaign’s momentum to its multi-channel strategy. “It is absolutely the result of this kind of network of communication — not a single channel communication, but a sphere of communication – that is forming.”